Off the Beaten Path

By Hannah Wallace January 31, 2005

On July 7, 1919, a bizarre and noisy convoy consisting of 46 military cargo trucks, 11 passenger cars, nine motorcycles, five ambulances, a caterpillar tractor, a pontoon trailer and a custom-built wrecker set off from Washington, D.C., in an attempt to drive 3,239 miles across the country's midsection to San Francisco.

The trip, sponsored by the War Department and cheered by the automobile industry, was essentially a public relations exercise designed to illustrate the need for a nationwide network of passable roads.

Fortunately for generations of motorists, a 28-year-old lieutenant colonel named Dwight D. Eisenhower was assigned to the trip. The future president was so appalled at the conditions he encountered during the three-month slog through dense forests, arid deserts and mud trails and that he would spearhead the building of the interstate highway system four decades later.

Today, tourists zoom from their homes in the Northeast or Midwest to Florida's attractions, beaches and resorts on seemingly endless ribbons of asphalt that slice through monotonous landscapes of pastures and swamps. Largely bypassed are the downtowns and small towns that truly give the state its character.

Virginia Haley, executive director of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau, would like more visitors to stop and smell the orange blossoms in these unheralded communities, where simple pleasures and hidden treasures abound. That's why Haley is chairing a statewide task force that will implement a promotional effort called Florida's Downtowns and Small Towns.

"We want to make the case that Florida is more than the traditional beaches and attractions," says Haley. "Plus, driving tourism into our downtowns and small towns also drives revitalization and job creation."

Of course, in Southwest Florida, downtown Sarasota and Naples have long been tourist destinations in and of themselves. Sarasota's hip arts scene, eclectic restaurants and boutique-style shopping keeps the city's burgeoning urban center hopping while Naples' upscale national retailers and old-money ambience remains a magnet for the well-to-do.

Often overlooked, however, are less high-profile cities such as Bradenton (population 53,000), with its emerging Village of the Arts and its newly renovated South Florida Museum and Bishop Planetarium, and Venice (population 19,000), with its Italian Renaissance-style historic district and its adjacency to the Gulf of Mexico. "These are places that a lot of visitors aren't even aware of," notes Haley.

The Downtowns and Small Towns program is slated to launch in January under the auspices of Visit Florida, the state's tourism development agency. It's modeled after 2001's stunningly successful Culturally Florida promotion, which touted the state's performing arts venues, historic sites, museums and science centers as well as its small towns and rustic outposts.

According to Kerri Post, Visit Florida's vice president of new product development, the most popular component of the Culturally Florida package was Off the Beaten Path, a guide to such obscurities as the Boggy Bayou Mullet Festival in Niceville, the T.G. Beggs & Company Mortuary Museum in Madison, Carla's Sandwich Shop and Prison Museum in Starke, the First Coast Ham Jam in Middleburg, the Spiritualist Camp in Cassadaga, Solomon's Castle in Bradenton and the Smallwood Store in Chokoloskee.

Therefore, she notes, it took no extraordinary leap of faith to decide where the focus of Culturally Florida's follow-up campaign should be. Clearly, would-be visitors were intrigued by the offbeat and the authentic-and were willing to travel a bit out of the way to find it.

"A lot of Florida's downtowns are hip and happening places," says Post. "Plus, I think people now more than ever are looking for unique sights and experiences when they travel. St. Augustine and Key West, for example, are unlike anywhere else. But they aren't the only Florida towns that offer a real sense of place."

Still, this initiative is far more than a feel-good exercise for tourism officials. Travel to Florida has mostly rebounded since the 2001 terrorist attacks, but privately some industry insiders worry that the state's theme parks and resorts, while continuing to thrive, may be growing a bit stale.

Adding to the concern are the results of a recent survey commissioned by Visit Florida to gauge the potential impact of last summer's four major hurricanes on tourism. According to the report, released last October, about one in five potential vacationers now say they'd consider alternate destinations for fear of more storms.

Granted, the hurricane phobia may well be temporary. But the unsettled international situation and the shaky economy may have combined to subtly but permanently alter the average vacationer's psyche.

While an expensive-and ultimately nerve-wracking-family excursion to Disney World may have been de rigueur pre-9/11, today's travelers may be more inclined to set a more leisurely pace, and to seek out reassurance that a comfortingly Norman Rockwellian version of America still exists beyond the gas stations and strip malls littering the exit ramps.

Certainly that appeared to be the case when results from the Culturally Florida campaign were analyzed.

With funding assistance from corporate partner American Express, the $1 million effort included colorful inserts in such national publications as Travel & Leisure and Food & Wine. In addition, a glossy Culturally Florida travel guide was distributed through interstate welcome centers and direct-mailed to 135,000 demographically desirable American Express cardholders living in such feeder markets as New York, Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Atlanta and Charlotte.

The most striking result: In the five-month period following the campaign, 59 percent of the 135,000 families receiving the travel guide actually made the trip to Florida, racking up nearly $47 million in charges on their American Express credit cards for items such as lodging, shopping, meals and entertainment.

"And remember, this program was launched in October of 2001," says Post. "It was just weeks after the terrorist attacks. We didn't know what the impact of that was going to be. But the results speak for themselves."

The Downtowns and Small Towns program will be conducted in much the same manner, again with American Express as a corporate partner. The centerpiece will be a Downtowns and Small Towns publication that will describe the state on a town-by-town basis, emphasizing those with walkable historic districts and unusual claims to fame. The program will also be promoted on Visit Florida's Web site,, as well as through advertising and public relations activities.

Pilot efforts are now being undertaken in Panama City, located in the Florida Panhandle, Palatka, located along the St. Johns River in northeast Florida, and even much-maligned Miami, which is anxious to promote its downtown revitalization and shed its image as a dangerous place to visit.

"We need to play to our strengths," says Haley. "So many of our downtowns have wonderful histories and a tradition of lively events."

North Florida's Lake City, in fact, may be the prototypical town that time forgot. Until the interstates were built, fully half the out-of-state tourists driving to Florida passed through "The Gateway to Florida," and civic leaders worked hard to make a good impression.

Today, visiting motorists still pass through Lake City-but most probably don't even notice. While more picturesque U.S. Highways 40, 90 and 441 came straight through town, Interstates 10 and 75 allow cars to whisk past the city's outskirts at 70 miles per hour.

"We want people to get off at the exits and see what's there," adds Haley, who had just returned from a trip to Lake City and was delighted to find the state's oldest continuously operated soda fountain still serving hand-dipped malts and banana splits.

Closer to home in Venice, John Ryan is ready for company. Ryan, executive director of the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce, notes that Venice is one of just a handful of Florida cities not separated from the Gulf of Mexico by a barrier island. In fact, downtown Venice became its own island in 1963, when the Intracoastal Waterway was carved along the length of the state's coastline.

"Venice Avenue dead ends into the Gulf, and you've got the most beautiful sunsets in the world right in front of you," Ryan notes. And of course, there's the annual Sharks Tooth and Seafood Festival-Venice is the self-proclaimed Sharks Tooth Capitol of the World-and an abundance of boutiques and small restaurants.

Bradenton, too, proclaims itself ready for prime time. Bill Theroux, executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, describes progress in the city's urban core as "mind-boggling." New residential development, including 600 riverfront condominiums, will attract shops and restaurants that will serve both residents and visitors, Theroux notes.

Then there's the Bradenton Village of the Arts, a once-blighted neighborhood of 220 residences that the city has nurtured as a home for artisans and galleries in which to display their work, and the expanding museum and planetarium, home to "Snooty," the world's oldest manatee.

None of these homespun attributes quite equal the thrill of a ride on Space Mountain, but that's the point. Nowadays, tourism officials hope, a real manatee-even a decidedly homely geriatric one-will be as intriguing to some would-be travelers as an ageless cartoon mouse.

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